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What Illustrators Want from Art Directors

Last week, we looked at what art directors want from illustrators. Now it’s time to put the shoe on the other foot and examine what illustrators want from art directors. This should be a good primer for anyone thrust into the role of art directing or commissioning illustration, or who just wants to get better at it. Here’s a list of what art directors should know:

Give all the information when commissioning an assignment

There are many different factors that go into whether or not an illustrator decides to take on a project. Therefore, when reaching out to an illustrator, don’t just ask about availability. Give them all the pertinent information. This includes:

  • What you’re looking for. Is it a magazine cover? Five interior illustrations? What’s the subject matter? Is there something specific you want? Are there any pieces of the illustrator’s you’re looking to get something similar to? Etc.
  • The due dates. It’s impossible for illustrators to know whether or not they can take on an assignment without knowing if it can fit it into their schedule. Give them the sketch and final art due dates.
  • Rights. What rights are you looking to get? An illustrator needs to know this upfront to help determine the value of the job.
  • Fee. What are you looking to pay? This is essential.

Give clear direction

When commissioning illustration, make sure that your direction is as clear as possible. Don’t wait until after the sketches are turned in to say, “This isn’t what we were thinking of.” If you know what you want, communicate it early. Don’t be afraid to get specific. In fact, be as specific as possible. Illustrators want to please art directors and if you can tell them in the clearest way possible what it is you want, do that. It will make the working relationship much better and have fewer rounds of sketches and revisions.

Hire the right illustrator for the right job

Individual illustrators have a very specific way of working and a very specific style. While there are some illustrators out there who can jump from aesthetic to aesthetic, most have their own “thing.” When commissioning a project, don’t hire an illustrator who doesn’t really do the kind of thing you want and try to force them into doing it. That’s how projects get killed. Instead, keep looking until you find the right person. Either that, or understand that you might not get exactly what you want; you’re going to get an individual illustrator’s interpretation of it. And be OK with that.

Give realistic deadlines

Good art takes time. Sometimes art directors are unaware of just how long it actually takes and give crazy deadlines. Commission art as early as possible so that your illustrators can have as much time as they can to do their best work to please you. And try to avoid Monday deadlines. A lot of art directors think it’s giving an illustrator an extra couple of days, but it isn’t. It’s robbing them of their weekends, which they sorely need.

Acknowledge receiving sketches/art/etc.

Most illustrators would agree that there’s nothing worse than handing in artwork and the art director never responds. They wonder whether or not he or she received it, did he or she hate it, should they resend? As an art director, even if you can’t say whether or not the art is approved, at least acknowledge within 24 hours that you received it. That will calm an illustrator’s nerves.

Respond in a timely manner

Additionally, for all communications, responding in a timely manner is much appreciated. Illustrators are constantly managing multiple assignments and need your help in making sure that nothing clogs the pipeline or—even worse—that they’re not sitting around waiting with nothing to do. Respond to their emails promptly so they can have more time to get your project done to the best of their abilities. And don’t sit on sketches until the very last minute and still expect an illustrator to meet the same deadline. (At least not without offering a nice rush fee for the inconvenience.) Remember, all an illustrator wants to do is their best work. Having timely communications with them ensures this.

Keep illustrators in the loop

Illustrators care a lot about their work and have to allocate time to all of their many projects. If something is being pushed back or delayed, let the illustrator know as soon as possible so that he or she can plan their life around it and fill in the financial gaps that the scheduling delay may create. Additionally, if you’re reaching out to multiple illustrators for a possible assignment, let the ones who didn’t get it know. It’s not fair to leave them wondering about it, only to finally see the thing in the real world months later.

Don’t f*ck with an illustrator’s art

Even though it’s a commercial business, illustration is still a very personal one. Obviously, changes need to be made to art all of the time. However, before a change is made, the illustrator should be contacted first and allowed the opportunity to do it him-or-herself. Or, if the change simply has to be done in-house, at least give the illustrator a heads-up. It is a truly crappy feeling to see one’s work printed completely differently than what was handed in and it also doesn’t give the illustrator the opportunity to remove his or her name from the piece of he or she doesn’t like it.

Fight for your illustrators

As an art director, you are the only line of defense between the illustrator and all the other cooks in the kitchen trying to get their two cents in to their work. If you and your illustrator feel strongly about something, fight for it. And fight for them. If your higher-ups are asking you to make the illustrator do something unethical or forcing them to make insignificant tweaks on the fifteenth round of a sketch, say “No.” Illustrators don’t just need you to hire them, they also need you to protect them and make sure they’re not taken advantage of through this arduous process.

Pay on time

Well, this is a bit of a cheat since art directors don’t control the checks. However, art directors can help illustrators get paid in a timely manner by not sitting on invoices and, instead, submitting them as soon as they’re received. Additionally, art directors can also be vigilant in aiding an illustrator chase down a late payment when it inevitably occurs.

Give illustrators tear sheets.

Finally, when a project is finished and printed, give your illustrator a couple of copies. Your illustrator worked really hard on it and would be tremendously excited to have some physical proof that the thing actually exists in the real world. It’s also important for an illustrator’s portfolio. Additionally, it’s classy as shit.

Final thoughts

These are things that most illustrators would agree that they’d like to see from the art directors they work with. Now, clearly, there are a lot of amazing art directors out there who don’t need to be told any of this. And kudos to them! But, for the few who aren’t the best to work with or for those who have been put into art direction positions without an actual knowledge of how to work with an illustrator, this is a good primer. As with my discussion last week, none of this is meant as a gripe session. This is merely a guide on how art directors and illustrators can work better with each other. And that means better art and a better life. Everybody wins.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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